Claude Guéant, the former chief aide to Nicolas Sarkozy, has been formally accused of tax evasion and forgery by two judges investigating alleged financial links between the ex-President and the late Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
After 30 hours under arrest, Mr Guéant, 70, the minister in charge of police and security from 2011 to 2012, was placed under formal investigation at the weekend for using false documents and “conspiracy to evade taxes”.
It might seem a humiliating outcome for a man whose civil service and political career was built on an uncompromising approach to crime. His lawyer, however, hailed it as a triumph because investigating magistrates had failed to substantiate the accusations of corruption and illegal campaign financing that prompted their inquiry two years ago.
Philippe Bouchez el-Ghozi, Mr Guéant’s lawyer, said: “An investigation that was billed as earth-shattering has completely deflated… It is now all about the ownership of two paintings, whether they existed and whether they should have been declared to the tax man.”
In pictures: Nicolas Sarkozy through the decades
In pictures: Nicolas Sarkozy through the decades
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Nicolas Sarkozy looks on before the meeting with King Juan Carlos of Spain at the Zarzuela Palace on 27 May 2014 in Madrid
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Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy leaves 'La Petite Maison' in Nice, southeastern France, on 27 September 2013 after a private conference in Cannes
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France's outgoing president Nicolas Sarkozy shakes hands with France's president-elect Francois Hollande, next to France's outgoing First Lady as they are about to leave the Elysee presidential Palace after the formal investiture ceremony between Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, on 15 May 2012 in Paris
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President and right-wing ruling party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) candidate for the French 2012 presidential election Nicolas Sarkozy gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Saint-Pierre in the French overseas island of La Reunion, on 4 April 2012
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Former France's president Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy leave the Elysee presidential Palace after the formal investiture ceremony between France's president-elect Francois Hollande and his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy on 15 May 2012 in Paris
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French Interior Minister and leader of the French ruling Conservative party UMP (Union for a Polpular Movement) Nicolas Sarkozy greets British Conservative party leader, David Cameron prior to a meeting in Paris on 6 January 2006
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French interior minister and powerful head of the ruling UMP party Nicolas Sarkozy pronounces a statement in the high chamber of French Parliament focused on his general policy on 8 June 2005 in Paris, few days after his return to government office
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Nicolas Sarkozy in Brussels on 3 May 2004
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Nicolas Sarkozy, then minister of Interior and French President Jacques Chirac at Elysee palace in Paris on 10 May 2002
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Nicolas Sarkozy, head of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR), waves during a rally in Dijon on 4 June 1999 ahead of the 13 June European elections
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Nicolas Sarkozy in campaign for the Legislatives of 1986
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Nicolas Sarkozy participates in a demonstration in Paris, 14 April 1976
Anti-corruption campaigners, who are civil parties to the case, rejected this interpretation of events. They said Mr Guéant’s arrest on Friday and the preliminary charges brought by magistrates showed that the judicial inquiry into the alleged financing by Gaddafi of the 2007 Sarkozy presidential campaign was “making progress”.
The “Gaddafi affair” is one of a dozen criminal investigations into former President Nicolas Sarkozy or into his close political allies or friends. In 2011, as the Gaddafi regime fell, several senior Libyan figures alleged that Tripoli had given millions of euros to the Sarkozy campaign between 2006 and 2007.
As part of their inquiry into these allegations two investigating magistrates discovered that, in 2008, an unexplained sum of €500,000 had been sent from outside the country to one of Mr Guéant’s bank accounts. Mr Guéant was chief of staff to President Sarkozy at the time.
He explained that the money came from the sale of two Dutch paintings to a Malaysian businessman. Further investigations by the magistrates revealed that there was no trace of Mr Guéant having ever owned paintings by the minor 17th-century Dutch artist Andries van Eertvelt. They also discovered that Van Eertvelt canvasses had never sold for more than €20,000 each.
As a result, Mr Guéant was arrested for a second time on Friday. French media said the judges suspected the sale was a cover for a campaign payment by Gaddafi or a kick-back on French-Libyan trade deals.
In the end, his lawyer said, they were forced to accept that there was no proof of any such transactions. Mr Guéant was therefore formally accused of failing to declare his ownership or sale of the paintings.
Intriguingly, however, the magistrates also brought formal accusations of tax evasion against a Saudi businessman, Khalid Ali Bugshan. Mr Guéant has been banned from contacting Mr Bugshan while the investigation continues.
The Saudi businessman’s name has already appeared in other judicial investigations of alleged kick-backs on French arms deals and illegal campaign financing going back to 1995.Reuse content